Andrew Lambirth

Titian’s touch of genius

Andrew Lambirth on the National Gallery's magnificent show of this Renaissance giant

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Walking around this exhibition is a humbling experience. We are privileged to have a display of paintings of this quality in London, and it is an incredible achievement to have obtained loans of such distinction. One of the pictures scheduled for the show is not in fact available, 'Sacred and Profane Love' from the Villa Borghese in Rome, but two late additions more than compensate for its absence. One is the 'Crucifixion with Saint Dominic' from Ancona (which was so last-minute that it hadn't yet arrived when I previewed the exhibition), and the other is the magnificent 'Flaying of Marsyas' from the Czech Republic. When 'Marsyas' was last seen in London at the Royal Academy 20 years ago in The Genius of Venice exhibition, we were warned that we'd never see it again in England. Now, almost at the 11th hour, it has been secured for this exhibition. David JaffZ, the exhibition's curator, must take a lot of the credit for this, and deserves our gratitude. Titian, which runs until 18 May, is the first of a trio of Renaissance exhibitions to be mounted at the National, followed by El Greco and Raphael next year. If they are anywhere near as good as this, we are in for serious delights.

This show could have truthfully been entitled The Genius of Titian, without exaggeration or embarrassment. Six galleries trace the development of his work from a contemplative 'Virgin and Child' (known as 'The Gypsy Madonna') dated c.1511, when he would have been about 20 years old, to the last great works of his old age such as 'Saint Jerome in Penitence' from 1575. That first painting shadows forth so much that Titian was to make his own: the ability to differentiate textures, playing off flesh and fabric with carefully controlled exuberance, the subtle modulation of colour, the convincing emotional content, and the exceptionally skilful evocation of landscape. The Titian scholar, Charles Hope, calls the artist's revolutionary new figurative style that was to be so influential on generations of painters 'idealised but plausible', and we see the roots of it here. Also, in 'Portrait of a Young Man', a worthy companion piece to the much-vaunted 'Man with a Quilted Sleeve' hanging in the second gallery, there is compelling early evidence of Titian's understanding of how to portray personality through stance and gesture.

In the second room, three of Titian's paintings (including the magnificent 'Bacchus and Ariadne') have been reunited with Bellini's 'Feast of the Gods' and some panels by Dosso Dossi, for the first time since 1621. They were originally commissioned by Alfonso D'Este to hang in his private study, and the wall plan has been recreated here. An interesting exercise, though it doesn't necessarily present the pictures to their best advantage. One of them, 'The Worship of Venus', is notable for the artist's achievement in consistently differentiating a sea of cherubs, no small task. But Titian seemed to be able to draw on vast reserves of pictorial energy, no doubt assisted by the fact that the use of oil paints on canvas allowed the development of the image during its actual creation. This offered a new form of flexibility, of improvisation even, which reinvigorated the available imagery - particularly to a mind as inventive as Titian's.

The exhibition is dominated by Room 6, the largest space, though not the last to be encountered. Here the great pictures ring out like bells: 'Tarquin and Lucretia', the 'Flaying of Marsyas', 'The Death of Actaeon', 'St Jerome', 'The Entombment'. It's almost a relief to enter a room of first-class portraits, featuring such memorable conjunctions as the malignant melancholy of Pope Paul III with the lambent inexperience of his 12-year-old grandson, Ranuccio Farnese. (The Pope's portrait was so lifelike that people doffed their hats to it.) From another wall Aretino watches, conjured massively from daringly loose brushstrokes. There are so many fine things to be seen (look, for instance, at the self-portraits, and the portrait of Jacopo Strada), that they simply cannot be listed, except in the catalogue.

Although not a great admirer of the subterranean Sainsbury Wing galleries, I have to admit that the exhibition has been splendidly arranged given the restrictions of the rooms available. There are some lovely groupings and juxtapositions of paintings, such as the pairing of the monumental 'Aldobrandini Madonna' with the lavishly detailed 'Madonna of the Rabbit'. The show is also of a very agreeable size (with fewer than 50 exhibits), encouraging the viewer to return through the rooms (if the press of people is not too great), and reflect upon the mysteries of one of the world's greatest and most greatly loved artists. The catalogue is likewise of a size both convenient and agreeable to handle, is a model of accessible scholarship, and a bargain at £9.95 in paperback.

Of the 42 paintings by Titian in the exhibition, considerably more than a third come from British collections, and a dozen usually hang in the National Gallery itself. The viewer might reasonably expect more loans from abroad, though with the threat of war it's heartening that anyone is prepared to lend at all. But the whole point of this exhibition is to see Titian in a larger context than we are used to. And this we can do. It is of immense value, for instance, to be able to view the National's 'Death of Actaeon' next to 'The Flaying of Marsyas' from the Palace of the Archbishop in Kromeriz. The two paintings date from the same period (as far as it is possible to determine) and share the same near-monochromatic palette. They also confront the viewer with the problem of finish. Did Titian consider them finished? The brilliant economy of drawing in paint - the forms suggested rather than spelled out - the dazzling brushstrokes so full of light and passion, the whole canvas alive with movement and conviction - these qualities we recognise and they appeal deeply to us. But is this just a 21st-century preference for the incomplete over the highly wrought? Debate will no doubt continue to flourish over Titian's late style, but what is undeniably evident in this exhibition is how moving these last images are. A man being flayed or torn to pieces by his own hounds may not seem an ideal subject for a thing of beauty, yet the power of the paint-work is such that the grisly narrative is effortlessly transcended. That is the mark of great art, finished or not. These are paintings which refresh the spirit.